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19 September 2011

On this day in history: New Zealand women gained the right to vote, 1893

During the nineteenth century women's suffrage movements emerged in democratic nations around the globe drawing upon the liberal philosophies of the Enlightenment. In New Zealand campaigners such as Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann argued that an extension of the franchise would increase the moral tone of politics and do more to protect the family, which was seen as the traditional sphere for women. These arguments persuaded a number of male politicians to support universal suffrage including John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel and William Fox - all of whom held office as Prime Minister of New Zealand.

In 1878, 1879, and 1887 the lower house of parliament passed amendments to electoral bills granting votes to women, but on each occasion the upper house, called the Legislative Council, blocked the amendment. In 1893 the Electoral Bill, which extended the franchise to all adult females (including Maori women), passed the House of Representatives. It would have been vetoed by the upper house as before had it not been for the heavy handed tactics of the Liberal Prime Minister, Richard Seddon.

Seddon opposed votes for women, but realising that a large proportion of his own party supported an extension of the franchise he decided to publicly support the Bill while applying pressure on members of the Legislative Council to veto it. In the opinion of two councillors, he applied a little too much pressure and they switched position in protest voting to support the measure, which the Council then passed by twenty votes to eighteen. On 19th September 1893, the Governor of New Zealand, Lord Glasgow, gave Royal Assent to the bill, and in November and December of that year, women voted for the first time in the national election.

The New Zealand History online site includes a number of pages dedicated to 'New Zealand women and the vote', including articles, a timeline and a gallery.

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